Candidates woo 'bride of the Bekaa' with cash, patronage
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As Lebanon heads to the polls in May 6 general elections, residents of the eastern city of Zahlé are negotiating their way through a complex electoral system, juggling offers of cash payments and patronage privileges from certain candidates.
reporting from Zahlé, Lebanon
Nicknamed the “bride of the Bekaa”, the city of Zahlé is arguably at her finest in the morning sunlight. Picturesque red-tiled roofs hug the hilltops overlooking the fertile Bekaa Valley, the agricultural heartland of Lebanon. High above the city, a statue of the Virgin and Child – known in these parts as “Our Lady of Zahlé” – is perched atop a tower so high, it sometimes seems as though the Virgin could touch the last remnants of the winter snow in the Lebanon Mountains.
Located just 5 kilometers up from the Beirut-Damascus highway and barely a 20-minute drive from the Syrian border, the Christian-dominated city drove warlords of yesteryear to fight pitched battles for this strategic site.
Today though, the warlords-turned-politicians and feudal lords have struck up improbably strategic alliances to try to win Zahlé’s seven parliamentary seats in Sunday’s general elections.
Under Lebanon’s archaic confessional system, the Bekaa 1 district – which includes the villages around Zahlé – has its seven seats split on a demographic basis between the religious communities represented in the area. There are two seats reserved for Greek-Catholic candidates and one each for Greek-Orthodox, Maronite, Shiite, Sunni and Armenian candidates.
The candidates are omnipresent on billboards across the city, sometimes with their party leaders, sometimes with their children, the heirs, it appears, to political dynasties that have adapted to Lebanon’s entitled, divisive form of democracy.
However, their photogenic attempts to woo voters do not seem to have convinced many residents of Zahlé going about their daily business.
“They’re just playing the people. I think everything is decided in advance. They know exactly who’s going to win. They’re just laughing at us,” dismisses Fadi Khoury* as he hunches over the counter of his jewelry store devoid of customers.
With just days to go before Sunday’s vote, Zahlé is a microcosm of the problems plaguing the long-awaited general elections. Opportunistic political players, disenchanted voters, corruption, clientelism, feudalism…Zahlé has it all, and none of the gods – religious or political – staring out at the Bekaa Valley seem able to address them.
Opportunistic alliances, unlikely allies
A new electoral law, passed last year, introduced a proportional representation system with the intent of making the process more equitable. But then the major national parties got together with very little consultation or public debate, did the electoral math, redesigned districts, and cobbled up a complex form of proportional representation that has perplexed voters.
Once the law was passed, the major political players proceeded to form alliances that were so opportunistic and bereft of any shared ideals or agendas, they appear to have alienated sizeable proportions of a populace long resigned to the eccentricities of Lebanese politics.
Voter apathy has been a particular concern on the 2018 campaign trail. This year, for the first time ever, Lebanese expatriates were able to vote in their countries of residence. But only slightly more than 90,000 of them have registered to vote, according to Lebanon's Minister of Foreign Affairs and Emigrants -- an embarrassingly small number given the huge Lebanese diaspora scattered across the world.
Dollars for votes
Then there’s the corruption, which persists in Zahlé as it does in virtually all regions and sectors of Lebanon.
“These campaign people came here and they offered me $200 and said, ‘take it’. I refused,” explains Khoury gesturing vaguely at the posters outside his shop window.
“The last elections in 2009…” he continues before stopping and asking that his name be changed to protect his identity. Assurance received, the 53-year-old jeweler proceeds to recount his experience during Lebanon’s last general elections. “In the last elections, I took $500 for one candidate and I went to the polling station and said hello to everybody. But I didn’t put my ballot in the box. My wife too got $500,” says Khoury with a laugh as he evades attempts to get him to name the candidate.
While Khoury accepted $500 for his vote in 2009, he declined a cash payment this year out of sheer disgust with the system. With just days to go before polls open across Lebanon on Sunday, the father of two teenage boys has still not decided whether he will vote – or for whom. “I’m fed-up with the old guys and the old parties. I want to get rid of them,” he sighs.
But he’s not eager to cast his ballot for a list of independent civil society activists who are running for the first time either. “These new guys…if some of them are elected…10 or 20 of them...I'm sure they will be crushed by the old guys,” he concludes.
Where sons follow their fathers in the social pecking order
Not everyone though is as jaded as Khoury. Across town, 23-year-old Elie el-Hajj Farah says he’s eager to vote in Sunday’s polls.
“My morale is very high. Of course I will vote. This is the first time I will be voting and I’ve been waiting for this moment,” explains Farah.
Sitting outside a spectacular, old Zahlé mansion with its brick walls sporting campaign flags, Farah says he has no doubts about who will get his vote: his boss, Myriam Skaff.
Farah works as a bodyguard for Skaff, a member of the city’s most influential Greek-Catholic family whose ancestors have owned vast tracts of fertile land in this region since Ottoman times.
A mother of two, Skaff took over the Popular Bloc list after the 2015 death of her husband, Elias Skaff, the grandson and son of former Lebanese ministers who himself served as a cabinet minister in several governments in the 2000s.
Giant billboards of Skaff with her two teenage sons, Joseph and Gebran, occupy prominent spots across the city in a sort of visual testimony to the family’s intention to dominate local politics for at least another generation.
Farah himself is not likely to oppose the neo-democratic twist to an ancient feudal system, if only because his ancestors have survived on the patronage of their overlords. “I’m with Madam Myriam because my father has worked with the family for 30 years and he’s still working for them,” he explains as he sips coffee with the neighbourhood youths seated on plastic chairs at the doorway of the Skaff campaign headquarters.
An overlord to watch over you
In a country where unemployment and corruption is high, Farah cannot contemplate a trouble-free life in this city without a Skaff protecting him. It’s a form of clientilism called “Zuama” in these parts, which comes from the word “zaim” – or overlord.
In Lebanon today, the Zuama system sees the modern day zaim extend patronage, privileges and protection in exchange for electoral loyalty.
Last year, Farah claims, the city’s municipality – which is currently not controlled by the Skaff’s Popular Bloc – slapped him with a $60,000 fine for failing to have the requisite permits for a soda kiosk the family had been running for years.
“If Madam Myriam doesn’t go to parliament, who will help me?” Farah asks rhetorically.
Harassing and evicting Syrian refugees
Harassment over leases and permits is common in Bekaa cities and towns, since there are widespread breaches that are systematically overlooked by municipal authorities – until it’s time to target a family or group.
A 2017 Human Rights Watch report found municipalities in Christian-dominated towns in the Bekaa arbitrarily using permit and license infractions to forcibly evict Syrian migrants fleeing the civil war across the border.
Syrian Muslim refugees, the report found, were particularly targeted with migrants claiming that women in hijab were harassed while Syrian Christian families were spared. Zahlé was cited in the report since the “municipal police were highly aggressive and Lebanese residents cheered them on” as Syrian refugee families were evicted from the houses they had rented.
Choosing between enemies on the same list
But that level of police hostility is not nearly enough for Joseph* Maalouf, 40, a former Lebanese army soldier who has been unemployed for the past two years.
“You can’t get a job because all the jobs here in the Bekaa are going to Syrians. They take lower salaries. There’s no state to monitor this illegal employment. Where are the parliamentarians? Where are the laws to ensure that this work goes to the Lebanese?" he demands.
The May 6 parliamentary elections, with their mind-boggling proportional representation system, have confounded the Maalouf family. From their hilltop balcony offering a spectacular view of Zahlé’s rooftops giving way to the lush green Bekaa Valley, they gradually reveal their quandaries. The 84-year-old matriarch would like to vote for Nicolas Fattouch, a Greek-Orthodox candidate with close ties to the Assad regime in Damascus. But she’s hesitant because Fattouch is on the same list as Hezbollah, the Lebanese Shiite party that she finds distasteful.
Her son, Joseph, on the other hand, supports the Skaff family and “Hakim” – the nickname for Samir Geagea, leader of the Lebanese Forces. Geagea is bitter enemies with Hezbollah. So if the matriarch votes for Fattouch and the son for “Hakim,” the two family members will be voting for diametrically opposed candidates even though they share the same political concerns.
It’s the sort of dilemma confronting many Lebanese citizens as they head to the polls Sunday in the country’s first parliamentary elections in nine years. All eyes now are on how many of them will cast their ballots on Election Day.
But one figure will probably never be known: how much money they were paid to cast those ballots.
(* Names have been changed to protect identities)